13 Jan

Okefenokee Swamp: Land of the Trembling Knees

“Two guys not so okey-dokey in Okefenokee” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 13, 2008).

The Seminoles certainly had it right when they called the eerie expanse of cypress and snake-infested land on the Georgia-Florida border the Okefenokee Swamp – “land of the trembling earth.” Though the origin of the word draws on the unsteady nature of the cypress swamp’s floor, I believe something might have been lost in translation. As far as I’m concerned, Okefenokee should mean “land of the trembling knees.”

When my brother and I first heard of the Okefenokee Swamp, we knew it held the ultimate experience of manhood. We were a little overzealous in our fervor, however, and decided to tackle the swamp as teenage suburbanites with a less-than-moderate amount of outdoors experience. So it was that we picked two scorching weeks in July to journey from our safe abode outside Philadelphia to the not-so-safe environs of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.

We arrived at the docking station at 7 a.m. to get our instructions from the ranger before we set off on our three-day journey into the swampy home of 5,000 alligators. The well-rehearsed ranger spewed forth a list of warnings that left two teenagers cringing.

“You’re both experts with a compass, right? OK, here we go. You wanna direct yourself to a 6-by-6 floating dock by 1 this afternoon, where you’ll spend the night. We’re gonna have nasty thunderstorms all afternoon for the next few days, so you have to be at your destination as early as possible.”

A 6-by-6 floating dock? I wondered whether it was painted with a bull’s-eye or the word sucker so lightning strikes and alligators alike could find us easier.

“Day 2, head out at dawn and make it to Floyds Island early in the afternoon,” the ranger went on. “There, you can set up camp on the beach. There’s one cabin there, but rattlesnakes like to call it home, so your best bet is to just use your tent. Make sure you check for rattlesnakes under the tent before you go to sleep, though, ’cause they like to hang out under there for shade. Oh, you’ll see sardine cans on the beach too, but ignore those. We’re conducting a study on the black bears.”

Camp on an uninhabited island? Next to rattlesnakes and sardine cans put there specifically to draw black bears? I studied the ranger’s face for some hope that he was joking. Alas, he simply continued.

“Guys, a few pointers before ya leave off. Try not to canoe under any cypress branches. Snakes have a tendency to hang out over the water and drop down into your canoe to hitch a ride. Bees. Hope you guys aren’t allergic to bees. You’ll see 2- to 3-foot-wide beehives throughout the trek. You might wanna stay clear of ’em.

“One last words, fellas: Keep your hands in out of the water.”

With that last line, the ranger smiled.

With dry mouths, nervous stomachs and trembling knees, my brother and I began our journey. We knew we were in trouble when the ranger had to “scoot” a gator away from our canoe just so we could load up our supplies.

Twenty minutes into our trip, with gators grunting all around us, we paddled up a narrow canal. I, being in the front of the canoe, acted as spotter, and it didn’t take long to see the gator floating in the middle of the canal, 10 feet in front of us. There was no room to go around it, so we stopped paddling and drifted. My heart beat in my throat. All too quickly, we drifted closer and closer to the gator, but it showed no signs of moving.

Inches in front of the gator, our canoe still drifting toward it, it sank beneath the surface and out of sight. We waited, as bait with bated breath, but the gator never came back. Not that we gave him much time – my brother and I paddled air the rest of our journey, our oars hardly touching water.

Back at the docking station an hour later as we returned our rented canoe, the ranger seemed a bit annoyed. His speech had been wasted on two suburban cowards.

We hoped he didn’t see us as we snuck into the video room to watch the National Geographic special on the Okefenokee Swamp. In the air-conditioned theater, with alligators and other reptiles safely on the screen, our trembling knees began to still themselves.